Directed by: Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores, Kristian Ferrer, Diana Garcia, Luis Fernando Peña
On my way out of the theater after having seen Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (meaning “without a name”), I was asked if I’d enjoyed the film. That’s not a question that really applies to a film like this, because it’s not the sort that’s exactly meant to be enjoyed. This is more the sort of movie that you either admire or you don’t. In that regard, I do admire it. I admire it more than anything because it presents its grimly realistic story without resorting to the now-tired tropes of the shaky-cam faux-documentary technique, casting amateurs and adopting a willfully ugly look. I admire Fukunaga’s attempt to make his points within a thriller framework about illegal immigrants making their way to the U.S. and the self-perpetuating cycle of gang life. I only wish Fukunaga was as good a writer as he is a director—but as this is his debut feature, I’ll cut some slack on that score.
Without having seen Fukunaga’s two previous short films—Kofi (2003) and Victoria Para Chino (2004)—I can only surmise based on their plot synopses that Sin Nombre is an extension or blending of themes he’s already explored. In a sense, he seems to have intertwined an illegal immigrant odyssey with a cautionary tale about violence feeding on itself. It’s this approach that gives the film its structure.
Sin Nombre tells two stories that lead to the intersection of two lives. The first story involves a young gang member, Willy (Edgar Flores), known to his gang as El Caspar. Willy isn’t completely sold on the gang life, in part because he’s fallen in love with Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia), who’s completely unaware of his gang involvement. However, once in the gang, it’s not so easy to walk away. So Willy plays the game—even going so far as recruiting 12-year-old Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) into the gang, subjecting him to the brutal beating initiation under leader Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta) and lending a hand in Smiley’s execution of a rival gang member. While Willy is starting to see through the whole gang mentality, Smiley is just the right age to buy into every bit of it, especially Lil Mago’s promises of a giant brotherhood that will always protect him.
The second story concerns Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teenager who gets talked into joining her father and uncle in an attempt to get into the U.S. through Mexico to join family members in New Jersey. Circumstances conspire so that Willy not only enters Sayra’s story, but becomes an active part of it. When Willy intervenes on Sayra’s behalf during a robbery in which Lil Mago tries to rape her, Willy effectively seals his own fate. Without revealing too much of the plot, it’s fair to say that Willy becomes a marked man, with the gang—including Smiley—determined to kill him.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out—at least in broad strokes—where this is going. For that matter, some of the foreshadowing is on the obvious side (you have at least a 50-50 chance of guessing the final scene). It’s also not in the film’s favor that the ending misses the level of intensity it aims for, especially since more effective tension is generated in earlier scenes. But much is made up for in the handling of the relationship between Willy and Sayra, which is crafted with marvelous attention to details. The lack of a single “big moment” affords us a sense of the two as human beings we slowly grow to like. The refusal to take any of this to the level of melodramatic preachiness found in last year’s illegal immigrant drama, Under the Same Moon, is refreshing and surprising, especially since the material here is actually ripe for melodrama. In this regard, and in so many others, Sin Nombre offers much to reward the viewer. Rated R for violence, language and some sexual content.